The strengthening of the Russian hold over the Karabakh issue – and more generally over Southern Caucasus politics – was arguably the biggest diplomatic price Baku had to pay for the military victory in the “44 Days War” and for reconquering the territories surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave previously under Armenian occupation. As a matter of fact, allowing Russian boots to come back on national Azerbaijani soil about thirty years after leaving it and under a peacekeeping guise – a long-standing aim of Moscow's regional policy – can be seen as the main compensation for the neutral stance kept by the Kremlin during the 2020 war. Moscow's reinforced regional primacy and Russian peacekeeping mission do not come free of a complex mix of opportunities and threats to the Azerbaijani national interest, confronting Baku with the difficult task of simultaneously engaging and constraining the Russian bear.
Engaging Russia offers Baku significant opportunities with a view to crystallize the 2020 military victory, which entails countering the revanchist tendencies running through Armenian politics and society, on the one hand, and facilitating the rehabilitation, development, and full reintegration of the reconquered territories, on the other hand. Here, Azerbaijani and Russian interests and priorities seem to converge, as a noteworthy degree of entente can be detected along the two key short- and mid-term goals intended to stabilize the area – namely the delimitation and demarcation of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the unblocking of regional economic and transport connections.
At the same time, constraining Russia emerges as an overall necessity to Azerbaijan in order to ward off the former's temptation to freeze the current situation on the ground, turning what Baku intends — and steadily portrays as — a temporary peacekeeping deployment – consistently with the provisions of the November 2020 cease-fire declaration – into a permanent military presence. A permanent presence would replicate already-known Russian schemes for intervention in its neighborhood, turning self-proclaimed Republics into military protectorates. In this context, such scenario would prevent Baku from achieving the key goal of a gradual yet full reintegration of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
Over the ten months since the deployment of the peacekeepers – still acting in a loose normative framework, in the absence of a legal mandate – there was no lack of warning signs to Baku. The peacekeeping mission came in the way of the Azerbaijani strategy for reintegration more than once, causing rising tensions between Moscow and Baku. Complaints over apparently marginal — yet symbolically significant — gestures of recognition of the self-proclaimed institutions repeatedly emerged in both the national press and government rhetoric, along with protests of non-compliance with the terms and the spirit of the cease-fire declaration around the withdrawal and disarmament of Armenian forces, the widening prerogatives for action of what should be a mere observing mission, and the lack of control over illegal shipments to the enclave through the Lachin corridor. At a wider look, increasing frictions between Russia and Azerbaijan over the mandate and the wider scope of the peacekeeping mission help clarify the obstacles and threats the latter currently poses to the goal of simultaneously de-legitimizing and isolating the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, pre-requisites for reintegrating what Baku conceives — and portrays merely as — an area of the country inhabited by an Armenian minority, not deserving a special status.
For Baku, engaging and simultaneously constraining Russia means keeping walking along the 'strategic hedging' path effectively followed up to today, although in a context made all the more complicated by Moscow's increased bargaining and blackmail power. Deepening the strategic partnership with Ankara in both economic and military terms seems to be the main strategy currently pursued by Baku in order to ward off Russian pressures. Yet, the efficacy of Turkey’s balancing role in the Southern Caucasus is highly disputable: on a military level, Turkey does not pose a credible challenge to Russia, while on a diplomatic level Ankara does not seem fit to play a regional power broker role, at least until the day – hopefully close, but realistically further away – when its relations with Armenia will be normalized and the short-circuit of regional diplomatic dossiers will be defused. Moreover, aligning with Turkey has its own – and not necessarily low – diplomatic price and its own potentially destabilizing effects at a regional level, as Azerbaijan’s shifting position on Cyprus and tensions with Iran following the tripartite military drills involving Pakistan recently suggest.
In such a circumstance, an effective hedging strategy cannot but entail the need for Baku to re-engage Western interlocutors and bring international mediation back into the Karabakh picture. Difficult as it may be – considering the international community’s persisting ‘distraction’ around the area, the OSCE Minsk Group format’s apparent obsolescence, and Azerbaijani maximalist negotiating positions on the Karabakh dossier – this may prove to be the only way to constrain Moscow and find a diplomatic way out of the conflict, especially today when Russian peacekeepers’ presence places the military solution out of reach.